Monday, August 15, 2011

Dressage Chronicles: A dressage novel with street cred

Here's the BTB product review disclaimer: Yes, I do get free stuff by virtue of having a blog. Often as not it's stuff I can't use (e.g., hoof conditioner, which my farrier forbids me to use). Here's my policy on reviewing free stuff: I don't  write negative reviews, life is too short. If  I don't like it, I won't blog it. If I write somehting positive, it's sincere :-).

The Dressage Chronicles: Well done!

 Maybe some of you have seen the publicity for The Dressage Chronicles  by Karen McGoldrick. Two videos are on Youtube (one is shown here, the other is an interview with the author), and I've seen it advertised on Facebook and elsewhere.  The book is billed as an inside view of the life of a  young rider and working student (Lizzy) at a big dressage barn with "high dollar horses and ambitious women."

I don't usually ask for free stuff, but this was too intriguing to pass up. I asked The Dressage Chronicles publisher for  a review copy. Why not? I have a toehold in the world of competitive dressage, and as an academic librarian, voracious fiction-reader, and former cog in the bookselling industry, I'm as qualified as anyone. I'm a tough critic from the standpoint of literature and writing. At the start, I had some concerns...

  • Deeds Publishing, who are they? Vanity Press? Self-published? Oh dear.
  •  Reading a novel, or watching a movie about a subject you know well is dangerous -- don't you hate it when the author is a poseur? When they get the facts or language wrong, like in a  movie I saw where rider approaches the trainer and says "Would you teach me the dressage steps?" Never once have I heard the phrase "dressage steps" in the real world.
  • What if the book was crappy? I've read a lot of "horse" novels, and they ain't all literary gems. You know, the characters are one-dimensional, the plot too predictable, the romance too saccharine. How would I get out of writing the review?

No worries: This is the real deal
I got my copy this week and finished it this weekend. First of all, I should have read the author bio -- Karen McGoldrick has street cred: USDF bronze, silver, and gold on horses she trained; she has USDF instructor certification; she owns/runs her own dressage barn; she's been a working student.

This little review won't go into much detail about the story (no spoilers!). First, does it capture the dressage culture? Well, I'm pretty confident in saying that every syllable of this novel will ring true to dressage enthusiasts.  McGoldrick brings the reader lots of authentic detail about dressage and barn life, whether it's describing the horses' bloodlines, the cut of an expensive pair of breeches, or the experience pulling the mane of an unwilling horse.  One of the things that drew me into the story was the feeling of shared experience, especially as described the the main character, working student Lizzy. Forget she's a fourth level rider -- she's one of us. A few examples (among many)where I found myself nodding and smiling as I read...

Prepping for a show:
On a vague level I was aware that the rest of the world was worrying about wars, terrorism, and the global recession. But I tossed and turned each night worrying about Fourth Level test one and two." [ed note: in my case it would be Training 1 and 2]
Riding lesson on a schoolmaster:
"More impulsion Lizzy. Ready, now, one, two, three, and two, two, three and three, two, three." Rave was just listening to Margot. My legs were kind of flailing around, and was not sure what I was doing with the reins."
No romance (boys have already lost the struggle)
This isn't a boy/girl romance novel that uses dressage as a backdrop -- the characters have men in their lives, but the women and the horses are the focus.  It isn't an exposé like The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada. No one is demonized and you won't read about the "seedy underside" of the dressage world.  It's not a story about a girl/horse relationship-- in fact Lizzy barely rides her own horse in this book.

It does have lots of divas. Who won't love that?

Why I loved it (the main reason)
It's a slice of life, or at least life on a pretty good day. Dressage Chronicles has engaging, believable characters, all of whom have flaws and strengths. As a reader, I enjoyed the  parade of divas and diva behaviors, but it is never nasty, and always relayed in a spirit of good humor. The author gives thoughtful treatment to each character, from the barn worker to the manager,  the working student, the trainer, and even to the imperious and difficult barn owner.  I feel like I know them, and I have versions of some of them in my own life. I guess this is what novel critics would call character development. The people feel real to me.  And they're likeable.

I guess in summary, this isn't just a fun "dressage novel" or "horse novel" -- there are lots of those out there.  This writer can write, and this novel could have come any major publisher, except that I think the editors might have made McGoldrick dumb it down for the masses, or worse yet, turn it into a romance.

I loved it, and I'm envious -- this is the kind of novel I wish I could write. Thumbs up.

Oh, it costs a little more than the average paperback. Never mind. It's worth it.


  1. Cool. Maybe something to read when I am recovering from my least I can think about riding, then.

    Thanks for the review.

  2. So when does this come out for the rest of the world to read lol??? I'm kind of excited! :-)

  3. I bought this book a couple of weeks ago for my kindle and started reading it five days ago. Despite being busy running a two-day dressage competition for young riders, I finished the book in four days - it was surprisingly un-putdownable!
    It was all so "real", from the characters, to the horses, to the situations they found themselves in. And I cried...
    Well done Karen McGoldrick for presenting a true to life story set in our world.

  4. Is it available in eBook form? I have a Kindle and would love to download it to read. Sounds great!

  5. I'm going to look for it on my Kindle. Thanks for the review!

  6. It's available on the Kindle!!!! And available now!
    See the link to Dressage Chronicles link at

  7. Sold! Off to download on my Kindle! Thanks for the review. I'm still scarred from "Flying Changes" in which a jumper rider hops on a horse the entire barn is afraid of and rides (essentially) a grand prix test. *eyeroll* And no, it wasn't classified as "fantasy."

  8. sounds like a good book, I'll have to go out and buy it.

  9. Thank you Stacey and Company. I am spreading your blog far and wide, I am so thrilled with your review of TDC. Now I just need about a go-zillion more of you to read and leave comments on Amazon. Lizzy certainly has many adventures ahead of her, but in the meantime I am plotting out another one with another cast of characters. I'll certainly get back to Lizzy if there is enough interest. We are the sisterhood of the horse, and I know our numbers are large. I just need my little novel to find its way to our members.

  10. Karen, is this your first novel? Do you have a background in literature?

  11. Love the book reviews - added both books to my wish list. My Favorite horse book discovered as a child, and still a fav to re-read is Riding Days by Marjorie Mary Oliver, published in 1948. Lovely book.

  12. Just bought it for my Nook-can't wait to start reading tonight!

  13. And, it's a great buy in the eBook form (instead of Paperback)... if you already have an eReader, it will save you $15 here!


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